Descending into Melbourne at 130pm on Sunday the 23rd of September I was reminded by the Qantas captain just how cold this old town can get. In my neck of the woods, East Fremantle, spring has well and truly sprung so stepping out into the acute 10 degree day was challenging.
I was here to attend my very first Brownlow Medal count. My initial reaction was not to attend but I soon reassessed the situation as it evoked for me Hunter S. Thompson and his book the Curse of Lono. Upon telling my eldest son I was going he half- begged I get a pic with Buddy Franklin and Dusty Martin. “I will use as my Facebook profile. I will say ‘here’s two champions and some fat bloke with a mullet cut’”. Gonzo would be my guide.
My main motivation for going was not to pastiche the godfather of manic subjectivity but as a guest of the AFL. I am here with the Indigenous Player Alliance (formerly the Indigenous Past Player Association) spokesperson and 1993 Brownlow Medal Winner Gavin Wanganeen. The IPA president Des Headland was invited but could not get to Melbourne because of work commitments until the big dance between the Collingwood Pies and the Western juggernaut, West Coast Eagles.
Waking up on Monday morning I simultaneously tune into SEN on the wireless and the ABC News Breakfast on the TV. All the money is for Hawk Tom Mitchell. I go outside to sniff the air and drink coffee as the sun warms my back. Mitchell’s season has been stellar. It’s almost obvious he will win. This is what makes me sceptical. I think of 2000 when Charlie was won by Shane Woewodin (East Fremantle product) against a stellar field including Scott West, Andrew McLeod and Kouta. If sport has taught me anything it is to expect the unexpected. Wanganeen was also not expected to win in 1993. I think Hunter would agree as he blasted his Magnum .44 into the TV.
I iron my shirt and check my cufflinks have made the journey. I have never worn them before. Perhaps they are a metaphor for a night of many firsts? I head into the city and walk around. I am THE bogan flaneur. Rattling around in my head is Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. I watched it a week ago and I am still processing it. I think I will for many years to come. Bravery is a word often bandied about regarding AFL footballers. Gadsby’s performance was branding-iron-painful in its truth. My cheeks burned with shame and something approaching relief. Her delivery reminded me of John Kennedy Snrs half-time speech in the 1975 Grand Final. Gadsby and Kennedy demand that we don’t merely hope for a better outcome but to do it. Kennedy to win a grand final. Gadsby to change the way we treat one another regardless of our identity, race, ethnicity, class, gender. She knows what it is like to be on the other end of violence and abuse and torment.
I go to the barbers in Degraves St for a clip. I pick up the Herald Sun and read Dane Swan’s piece on how to survive the biggest night on the footy calendar. Take a hip flask and don’t leave your partner to go off drinking with footy types are the first two tips. Surely these would cancel one another out. Too much Beam and lemonade and it would lower ones defences falling into temptation? Brendan Fevola explodes into my mind as he did on the Footy Show all those Brownlow’s ago. At least Hunter would do it with panache. Maybe Fev was too we just could not see it?
I shower and get dressed. The cufflinks are tricky. So is the tie. I get to Crown on the tram. I don’t engage with anyone and listen to a song on my phone, Salad Days by Marc De Marco, on a loop. I get off the tram and head to a bar and have a beer. Plenty of beautiful people moving around. I have another beer. I head to the red carpet. Another new experience. There is a long line, mainly footy players and their partners. All wanting the moment they had waited for all season, all their life. The express lane is me and a few other no-ones. Chris and Rebecca Judd are burning up the scene too my left. More security and more news outlets are spaced out every few metres. I bump into Brownlow Medallist Brad Hardie. We chat briefly and I head into the main room. Everywhere you look there are known knowns. I get to the table and chat with Gavin Wanganeen and his wife Pippa. We take our seats and the night begins.
Unlike Dane Swan’s article and the suggestion the Brownlow is boring it actually goes pretty quickly. Lots of colour and light. Lots of footage of the season. Goals and marks of the year. Great food. Gillon McLachlan flies through the votes. Steve Hocking to his right looks relaxed and satisfied. Retired players are recognised as Mahalia Barnes kills the Foo Fighters My Hero. The general feeling in the room is one of celebration and joy. In between breaks I sidle up to Dusty Martin and Buddy Franklin and ask for a selfie – they indulge me and I immediately flick it to my son who has requested it. There is a break I head to the toilet. Coming back the doors are manned so as not to interrupt the telecast. I bump into ex AFLW Docker Kirby Bentley. She is living in Melbourne and loving it. Then the doors are flung open. Gavin informs me Neville Jetta has won the Jim Stynes award for Community Leadership. In the break I seek Neville out. He is warm and accommodating. In my dealings with Jetta this award could not go to a better bloke. I imagine his Noongar mob back in WA their chest swelling with pride.
The night ticks on without a hitch and then suddenly we are a few rounds away from knowing the Brownlow winner. Mitchell is going to win despite excellent polling from Sidebottom and Cripps. After round 21 Mitchell cannot loose. As the final votes are counted Mclachlan announces what we all know. Rousing applause. Mitchell walks to the stage. Dustin Martin anoints the 2018 Brownlow Medallist. Bruce McAvaney interviews Mitchell. He thanks his club, his girlfriend and his family. And just like that it is done. I wonder how the king of Gonzo would have handled football’s night of nights? I think he would have loved Aussie Rules Hunter S. Its controlled violence, its values, its champions, its villains, its great inexplicability. This game that unites us and enables us to tell us who we are. In Grand Final week this comes to the fore in all its great colour and the Brownlow is the benchmark for the week that will be.